Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Purpose of Religious Communities

I always know I’m onto something when I can get a congregant to look at me cross-eyed. A few months ago I was having a conversation with a dear congregant from a corporate background about how our Fellowship here in Midland “did things”. How our committees and teams function, how members relate to staff, how we do our budget and our stewardship campaign. During that conversation, a phrase of mine earned me the “Cross-Eyed Congregant” award…

What I said was this: “The purpose of religious community is not efficiency. The purpose of religious community is spiritual growth. Sometimes we have to be inefficient if we are going to grow spiritually.”

I do not know if I had ever formulated this particular aspect of my ecclesiology (church-theory) until I made that statement. I’ve used the phrase many times since its first use last fall, always to similar “cross-eyed” results. It is a profound aspect of how I approach church-life, church-administration, and church-mission. As the minister of a congregation, I am not charged with running the most efficient non-profit around… I am charged with leading my congregants and the congregation as a whole (and by extension the world) toward spiritual awareness and growth.

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And sometimes we need a little inefficiency to create the conditions for us to grow spiritually.

Within Adaptive Leadership models there is often a theory called something like “The Creative Zone of Disequilibrium”. The idea is that there is a certain amount of anxiety that is necessary in a person, or a group of people, or even a society as a whole… there is a certain amount of anxiety that is necessary for people to be willing and able to do the creative work that can lead to transformative change. Too little anxiety, and there is “no problem” and therefore no motivation to do the work necessary for transformative growth. Too much anxiety, and we humans cease to function as creative, rational creatures and move into panic and instinctive fight/flight responses.

Inspiring people to be in this “Creative Zone of Disequilibrium” is part of the work of ministry. Not all the time, and not forever… because we humans do need times to rest and to just “be”… but creating the conditions for spiritual growth and transformation to occur in congregations and in individuals often means inspiring them to be in that space of creative disequilibrium.

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Often, “efficiency” is a code word for creating the conditions for a state of non-anxiety. Efficiency is the state where patterns and systems are tuned and balanced to the point where they operate with few places where the anxiety that is always within any human system to attach to them. I can usually guess that when someone is looking to create, inspire, or enforce “efficiency” in a system, they are looking to lower their own anxiety. And yet, anxiety is a necessary ingredient for spiritual growth… and spiritual growth is the purpose of religious community.

I do believe in efficiency, but not necessarily of money or resources (I know, did a minister just admit that in public?!?) I believe in the efficient use of anxiety. I believe in bringing enough anxiety into a congregational situation to inspire creative transformative work. I believe in letting people rest from transformative spiritual growth by letting them have non-anxious times in between times of spiritual growth. I believe in not feeding the anxiety of those who have moved out of the “top end” of the “Zone of Creative Disequilibrium”, and of helping the congregation to not “waste” anxiety by joining others in feelings of crisis or panic.

And if a little inefficiency in other areas can help in the efficient use of anxiety for the purposes of individual, communal, congregational, and societal spiritual growth… so be it.

Yours in faith,

Rev. David

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